Monday, June 13, 2016

The Thida Aye Cinema - Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar

Undulating Lashio, the economic capital of northern Shan State, is home to three stand-alone movie theaters. Each of the three is operating. Each one unique. Each adding a distinct flair to the city streets. Three welcomed sights in a bustling, modestly dense town in the Shan hills. 

Two of the three theaters in Lashio, including the highlighted Thida Aye Cinema, have been fully modernized in the last few years, moves which contrast sharply with mainstream developments in big screen movie exhibition. The third theater in town was erected this century, another cinematic anomaly in this day and age. 

While improvements to two and the erection of a third stand-alone movie theater in a single Southeast Asian town is a trend bucking phenomenon, it begs the question of whether this is a self-conscious effort, or simple coincidence. Indeed, the last few years have seen this endangered form find its way into conversations about cultural preservation and the limits of consumerism in rapidly growing Southeast Asia. But as Lashio lacks the institutional forces that help turn such conversations into action, it stands to reason that the investments made to its trio of cinema halls have more to do with local exigencies than any broader capitulation to sustainable urbanism, as romantic as the notion may sound. Either way, as far as Southeast Asia goes, Lashio can consider itself ahead of the curve in the realm of cinema preservation. 

The Thida Aye Cinema in all its horizontal glory

The Thida Aye was built in 1956, probably making it the first structurally concrete theater to be built in Lashio. Don't be fooled by the wood and glass facade, everything else is solid cement.

One Myanmar architect who studied Shan temple architecture in northern Thailand, claims that the architectural style of the Thida Aye belongs to the "contemporary Shan" school. That designation makes it extremely rare among movie theaters in Southeast Asia which, although having often developed their own regional architectural languages, fall almost exclusively within the modernist school of design. A local traditional style is practically unheard of. 

The day time manager selling tickets in front of the theater before the box office opened.

The Thida Aye was fully modernized within the last two years, a clear indication that an appetite for big screen entertainment still persists among Lashioans. Along with the standard upgrades to digital sound and projection, the theater's original wooden bench seats were replaced with contemporary cushioned seats in a bid to make patrons more comfortable. Foam wall panels were likewise installed to sharpen the sound quality - an unfortunate addition from an aesthetic point of view.

Sadly, one of the reasons for the Thida Aye's recent renovations was born of an unfortunate sociopolitical episode, one which has reared its ugly head more than once in Myanmar in recent years. 

In a number of cities across the country, Anti-Muslim riots have broken out intermittently, marking the violent extreme of a Buddhist-nationalist ideology which espouses a Bamar-centric world view in conjunction with a heavy dose of xenophobia. The worst and most well known case occurred in the city of Meiktila in 2013, when a large swath of town was burned to the ground during an outbreak of violence. 

A similar, if slightly less destructive pogrom erupted in Lashio that same year. Among the places set on by the angry mob was the Thida Aye Cinema, which has long been owned by a local Muslim family. The extent of the damage incurred to the cinema is hard to determine. Subsequent repairs, however, turned out to be segue to a full-on makeover for the 60 year old cinema hall, the lone silver lining in an otherwise dark corner of Lashio's long history. 

Tickets for cash

Staff lounging in front of the Thida Aye before the day's first screening.

The Thida Aye auditorium. Black foam wall panels now cover the entire interior, detracting from the aesthetics as it improves the audio quality.

Layered view from the projection window. 

A brand new Sony 3D capable digital project anchors the projection booth at the Thida Aye Cinema

Ticket seller

The Thida Aye Cinema at night.

One can only hope that in its new found splendor, the joys of cinema and the act of movie-going will set the Thida Aye Cinema apart from the perversions of hate.